Try a little exercise. Go to three of your favorite websites, read an article in each and then write down the ads you can remember that you saw. I realize that this is not very scientific, but I think you will be left with the impression that you were fairly adept at mentally screening out the ads. Think about it for a moment, we are surrounded by advertising messages at almost every waking moment; when we are driving, in an elevator, waiting for a plane, even at the urinal! Some of the time, ads catch us when we are bored and open to diversion, but many times ads catch us when we are focused on a task, like driving or reading a story on a website.
It’s at these moments that we turn on our personal advertising filters to tune out the noise and focus on what is important to us. I think this is a natural human defense against the overwhelming amount of information trying to vie for our attention. We have all developed such defenses and as the noise grows louder—we get better at it. Take web ads for example. I don’t even see 80 percent of them anymore and the ones that I do look at are often so visually annoying that they create the opposite impression on me. I was on a marketing trade site recently reading an article and there was an ad on the left flashing at me non-stop. Despite this, I kept reading even though it was bothering me. Then I scrolled down the page only to find that the ad was repeated below. At this point, I thought about bagging the whole site because it was just too annoying. I became irritated because the flashing made it hard for me to ignore the ad and concentrate on the article. Some might say that’s the point, but I don’t think that annoyance is the basis for a business, and that brings me to the whole arena of web advertising.
The business model for web advertising is loosely based on the comfortable television model that we’ve all lived with for over 50 years: people pay for getting the content free by enduring the ads. The publishers are happy to sell the ads and the agencies are happy with a familiar ad model that they know makes them money. With web advertising, the clients on the other hand, are still just putting toes in the water unsure of the medium, but increasingly driven there by a sense that finally the paradigms are shifting and they should be exploring the world of new media.
At the same time, the web advertising model has become even more exciting to the advertising establishment now that video is being incorporated to the web. Now it really looks and feels like an extension of the old TV model, so Madison Avenue is tempted to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Halleluiah! The golden goose is not dead; it just moved…to the Internet.
The problem is that web ads are not TV spots. TV spots are placed between the chapters of the content. You have to watch them to get to the rest of the movie. Web ads on the other hand, live with and within the content, and as I discussed before, people tend to tune web ads out. That forces creative types like me to come up with ways to interrupt the viewer’s experience to get them to focus on my ad. So we come up with things like a tornado streaking across a page, which we did for the National Geographic Channel, to get your attention. Clever as some of these are, we are fighting an uphill battle and at some point we are going to run out of gimmicks. It is just too easy for the viewer to ignore web ads or skip by them, sort of like TiVo. Maybe that’s why web ads have such abysmal response rates. Rich media and standard ads average out at about 0.6% click throughs. That’s akin to the response rates we see on unsolicited email, read SPAM. It means that 99.4% of people probably don’t care. And to those who say to ignore the ‘click throughs’ we are going for ‘view throughs’ (meaning they work like TV spots).
Remember, these ads are trying to do the same thing as a TV spot, while sharing the stage with other ads and without sound to attract people. Having directed hundreds of TV spots, I know it’s tough enough to get people to care about and remember a TV spot that stands on stage alone for 30 seconds with the full emotional impact of video and sound.
So what does this all mean? Is advertising on the web a house of cards? Probably not, but it does beg the question, “Is there a better way to use this extraordinary medium to persuade people to buy things?” My answer is absolutely yes, there is. The broadband web is a new medium, something quite different from television; a medium that combines the best of TV, radio and print without many of their limitations, and adds the remarkable dimension of interactivity. The Internet has all of television’s ability to emotionally engage the viewer, plus it has the salesman’s ability to instantly tailor the perfect pitch, the perfect persuasive value proposition that will take the viewer from curiosity to understanding. And we all need a little more understanding.